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Buying an imported car: What you need to know

March 27, 2023 by

Whether you’re buying an interesting car from abroad, or you’re moving to the UK and bringing your car with you, you’ll need to know exactly how to legally and correctly import and register a car for use on our roads. Buying an imported car is mostly a simple process, but it’s not as easy as buying a regular used car, and there are a few hoops to jump through, so let’s take a look…

Parallel imports

What is a parallel import?

Parallel imports became big news in the 1990s when the price of new cars in the UK was generally much higher than in other European countries. However, because the UK was part of the EU at the time, and because the same type-approval regulations (the laws that govern when a car is considered safe and appropriate for sale) applied, many buyers decided to get their cars from mainland Europe and personally import them. Right-hand drive vehicles could be ordered from Continental dealers, and many of them — especially those within easy access of Channel ports and the Eurostar train service — started actively courting UK buyers.

There were certainly savings to be made, but that did taper off as UK prices gradually came down and it started to make less sense to go through the paperwork and travel hassle. Parallel imports are much rarer now. That said, many of the cars brought in as parallel imports are still on UK roads, and they can occasionally be picked up at a lower price than an original UK model, so they’re worth keeping an eye out for.

Pros of parallel imports:

    Parallel importing could, at the time, have saved you hundreds, even thousands of pounds over a UK stock car.
    The type-approval laws meant that you were getting the same minimum standards for safety equipment, crash protection and so on, whether you were buying in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, or anywhere in the EU.
    The publicity surrounding parallel imports eventually made UK dealers and manufacturers up their game on value.

Cons of parallel imports:

    Although the safety stuff was always the same, specifications were not necessarily so. You could be saving money, but possibly getting a lower, or at least different, spec to a UK car and that needs to be watched for if you’re buying a parallel import as a second-hand car now.
    Warranty cover could be an issue. Although all cars are legally covered by a pan-European manufacturer’s warranty, some markets have longer or shorter warranties than the UK, and so you could find yourself lacking cover on a parallel import if something went wrong. While it would be illegal for a dealer to refuse to carry out properly-covered warranty work, they could shunt you to the back of the queue for parts and work, as a sort of petty revenge for shopping abroad.
    The resale value for a parallel import can be lower than that for an original UK car, not only because of potential differences in trim (and the lower asking price in the first case), but because UK dealers will sometimes still be rather reluctant to take a parallel import as a part-exchange car. You may end up having to sell privately yourself (although, don’t forget carwow can help with that…)

Grey imports

What is a grey import

A grey import is one that comes from outside of the European Union, and which therefore might not conform with UK type approval laws. For the most part, such cars generally come from Japan — where, of course, right-hand drive is the norm — or the US, but there are imports from further afield too, such as Australia.
Probably the best-known grey imports are sporty Japanese cars, such as the Eunos Roadster (the Japanese market version of the Mazda MX-5), the Honda Integra Type-R, and the Nissan Skyline GT-R. The GT-R, made famous in video games in the 1990s, was actually ‘grey’ imported in such numbers that Nissan eventually started selling official models in the UK.
If you’re looking at a grey import, it’s really important to remember that the cars won’t be to UK specification and will have to pass an IVA (Individual Vehicle Approval) test before they can be used on UK roads, and that might involve making modifications to things such as lights and instruments, which can be expensive to do.

Pros of grey imports:

      • Grey imports are often great value, especially those from Japan as the Japanese market tends to buy higher-specification models, and trade them in more quickly than we do in the UK.
      • Grey importing gives you access to interesting cars that aren’t officially sold here, such as the Honda Beat sports car or the current Nissan Z.

Cons of grey imports:

      • Spare parts are a perennial issue for grey imports, as many Japanese models have different engine, gearbox, and suspension specifications to their UK counterparts and the components aren’t always interchangeable.
      • It might be difficult to get hold of the full service history for a grey import and it’s all-but impossible to verify if the recorded mileage is accurate. The owners’ handbook will also be in Japanese if it’s been imported from that country, and the European/UK version isn’t necessarily a like-for-like replacement. There is a service offered by the British Independent Motor Trade Association, which can provide certificates of authenticity to show that a grey import is what it purports to be.
      • Japanese cars aren’t given under-seal spray to protect the bodies from road salt, so you’ll need to get that done or risk serious rust issues.
      • The car’s controls — brakes, steering, the way the suspension reacts — might be different, as the model might not have been set up for the UK or European markets.
      • Servicing can also be tricky — some main dealers just don’t want to know about grey imports, and their diagnostic equipment likely won’t work on the car. You’ll need to plug yourself into a network of specialists.
      • Any grey import is likely to suffer heavy depreciation, because it’s a very specialist market, and you may also have issues getting insurance for models that UK companies don’t normally cover.
      • Some Japanese vehicles may have a less effective cabin heating system, or may struggle with repeated cold-starts in a UK winter.
      • If it’s a nearly-new car, you won’t have the benefit of a manufacturer’s warranty, unlike a car imported from the EU.

How to import a car to the UK

I’ve imported a car. What do I do now?

Once your new imported car — grey or parallel — has landed in the UK, you have 14 days to inform HMRC about the car, and to get it registered.

To do that, you’ll need to fill out a Notification Of Vehicle Arrival (NOVA) form. If you’re a private, non-VAT registered individual, then HMRC will actually fill that out for you, but you’ll still have to make an import declaration and email it to HMRC.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll be told if you need to pay VAT or import duties for the car. Generally speaking any car that’s imported now has to have VAT and import duties paid on it, but if you’re importing through an agent or dealer, they’ll probably sort all that for you. You can avoid paying VAT and import duties if the car was originally sold in the UK and you’re re-importing it, or if it’s your car and you’re moving to the UK to live. You’ll have to fill out some more forms to demonstrate all that, of course.

The rules for importing a car into Northern Ireland are slightly different, because of Northern Ireland’s continuing relationship with the EU. If you’re importing an EU car to Northern Ireland, you won’t pay any import duties, and you’ll only pay VAT if the car is less than six months old, or has fewer than 6,000km (3,728 miles) on the clock.

If your car has to go through individual vehicle approval, there are some shortcuts in the system that can ease your way, such as the ‘Comparable Standards’ allowance, which recognises that the likes of Japan, the US, and Canada apply broadly similar safety standards to the cars sold there, so you may not have to have every little component of the car inspected and approved. A Japanese Certificate of Completion or export certificate can cover a lot of that ground.

Once all that has been done, you can register the car on its UK plates, and to do that you’ll need proof of vehicle approval, a ‘declaration of newness’ V267 form, evidence of when the vehicle was delivered and collected (usually the shipping invoice), and the original foreign registration certificate.

How long does all this take? Generally about six weeks, if it all goes well.

If you have any questions, HMRC is generally very helpful and has a dedicated vehicle import team that you can contact at ecsm.nchcars@hmrc.gov.uk if you have any questions.

If all of that sounds a bit daunting, don’t be put off — there are some very good UK specialists who have years of experience in the grey imports world, and who regularly import grey models. You can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by starting your search with one of them.

What about insurance?

Getting insurance for a grey import can be an issue, especially if it’s a model for which there’s no UK equivalent. Thankfully, there are some specialists out there who are used to arranging cover for grey imports. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but insurance for a grey import can be more expensive, so it pays to do your research and shopping around before you commit to the importation process.